What began as a one-off photographic project to document the effects of plastic pollution on a remote albatross population became an eight year labour of love for artist Chris Jordan.
“Imagine if you could walk out into a football field that has 400,000 eagles on it, and when you walk among them, they don’t run or fly away, but they’re curious,” says photographer and filmmaker Chris Jordan. “They have no fear instinct so if you sit down on the ground, pretty soon, you’re surrounded by hundreds of them.”
Jordan is referring to his interactions with the albatross of Midway Atoll, depicted in his film Albatross, screening at Transitions Film Festival in Adelaide this weekend. “They’re as big as eagles,” he says, “with a powerful beak and huge wingspan,” but these birds on the Pacific Ocean’s isolated Midway Atoll have zero fear of humans.
Yet perhaps they should.
Jordan’s film, which he describes more as a love letter to these remarkable birds than a documentary, came from a photography project he began work on eight years ago. His work went viral for its depiction of the plastics that gathered within and killed the birds of this very isolated set of islands.
“I had been taking photographs for many years that were a commentary on mass consumption,” says Jordan. “That was why I went to Midway — to photograph this horrible tragedy that on this incredibly remote island there are birds whose bodies are filled with plastic. It wasn’t until the second trip out of eight that I met the live birds and began to see how amazing they are and that they have no fear of humans. That was when the tide turned for me away from horror to what has become a love story.”
Jordan’s previous photography, such as in his Running the Numbers series, also focussed on humanity’s mass consumption and plastic waste, but with a more patterned, geometric aesthetic that aimed to quantify the huge scale of the issue. This style changed distinctly when Jordan realised the power behind an image of a single animal that has consumed plastics until its death.
“There was always something a little dissatisfying about that approach,” says Jordan. “It was the kind of abstractness or conceptual nature of trying to face these global issues… It was so astonishing the first time to kneel over the body of a dead albatross with a stomach full of cigarette lighters, bottlecaps and toothbrushes and realise that that little handful of plastic told the whole story.”
This theme of over-consumption and humanity’s naïve excesses is present in Albatross, but Jordan says the film’s main focus is on the lives of the birds themselves. Since public understanding of plastic pollution in the oceans has grown in recent years, perhaps thanks to his own prior work, Jordan takes it as read that we know about the problem.
“I never step back and do all the narration about all the plastic in the ocean,” he says. “There’s only one line in the film that talks about plastic, and it is simply that albatrosses can’t know what plastic is. Their instinct is to trust in what the ocean provides, as they and their ancestors have done for millions of years.
“There’s some really gnarly, graphic footage of their bodies filled with plastic and them dying from the plastic, so it’s intense in parts,” says Jordan. “I didn’t turn away from it, but looked at it through a lens different to your standard informational documentary.”
Transitions Film Festival
Sunday, May 27, 7pm